Throughout this year, the very first of my tenure at Randolph, I have received dire warnings about graduation. “The heat!” people have admonished me. “Prepare to be drenched with perspiration. Wear sunscreen, but not too much because it might run into your eyes. Prepare to squint. Think cool thoughts. Put ice in your pockets.”
Actually, I don’t think anyone ever advised me to put ice in my pockets. That’s a terrible idea.
But look at the day we are enjoying now! We could not have asked for more temperate or pleasant conditions. So last night, in view of the forecast of mild weather, I realized that I wouldn’t need to abbreviate or rush my remarks as I had originally planned, to grant you all relief from a merciless sun. What follows, therefore, you will be happy to hear, is a thoroughly unabridged version of the speech I had hoped to give.
I am only joking of course. The seniors have already seen me pull this gag, back on the opening day of school, when I was still essentially a stranger to them. Some people say that prop comedy is humor of last resort, but I say it was funny then, and it’s funny now.
A few days ago, as my thoughts began to turn to this address, I came across an article in the Washington Post that inspired me to speak to you a little bit this morning – you seniors – about… happiness.
The article was an interview with Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and one of the editors of the 2015 World Happiness Report. The question that the World Happiness Report considers is called the Ladder Question. “Imagine,” says Professor Sachs, “that life is like a ladder where the bottom rung, represented by 0, is the worst life you could imagine, and the top rung, represented by 10, is the best life you could imagine. Where, between 0 and 10, is your life on that ladder?”
The study finds that, in general, people who identify income and social status as very important tend to be less happy than people who value generosity and compassion. The study finds, too, that while Gross National Product in the United States has risen in recent decades, Gross National Happiness has steadily declined.
I would also call to your attention this morning a publication by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA called The American Freshman. In the 1967 edition of that report, 86% of college freshmen cited “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as “essential or very important,” and only 42% cited “being very well off financially.” Those response rates have since switched places: 82% of freshman today value financial well-being, and only 45% value developing a meaningful philosophy of life. [Read more about this here.]
You will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe these two trends are related. Our increasing obsession with financial well-being in America is not translating to reaching that top rung of the emotional well-being ladder, “the best life you could imagine.”
In March of 1968, during a speech at the University of Kansas, Senator Robert F. Kennedy observed that “Our Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Seniors, as you bid goodbye to Randolph, I would wish for you that you never lose sight of the true value of the education that we have endeavored to instill in you here. Yes, a good education confers freedom from material want – the currency of diplomas in the marketplace is well established – but more importantly, an education confers freedom from wanting material things only. It liberates us to understand that which really makes life worthwhile.
The periodic table of elements, the zone defense, the B major scale, the works of Shakespeare, the Pythagorean Theorem, and yes, even the inauguration date of John Adams (March 4, 1797) – these things belong to everyone; and knowledge, study, and appreciation of them brings the kind of freedom that money can never afford.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Seneca the Younger recorded in his “Moral Epistles to Lucilius” the following provocations: “I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making. Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. One should linger upon them only so long as the mind can occupy itself with nothing greater; they are our apprenticeship, not our real work.”
It was Seneca who originated the term “liberal studies” to describe an education that “gives a man his liberty.” Seneca knew then, as Robert Kennedy knew in 1968, and as we still know today, when we are in touch with our better angels, that the best things in life are free.
Seniors, it was only yesterday that your parents sang lullabies to you as infants in their arms. It does not seem only yesterday to you, but it does so to them – and one day you will know, too, how a span of 17 or 18 years can contract, as our hearts reflect on them, in the suddenness as of the waking from a dream, to the span of only a single day.
You are too old now to be sung to by your parents, but one long-standing privilege of educational institutions like Randolph is the privilege to serve in loco parentis – to serve in your parents’ stead – as circumstances warrant. And so I would ask that you permit me, or forgive me, the crooning of one final lullaby as you leave their arms and ours, today:
The moon belongs to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone,
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring,
The robins that sing,
The sunbeams that shine,
They’re yours, they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone.
The best things in life are free.